Christmas Albums

· music · culture ·

I was lucky to get a couple of great albums for Christmas this year, which I’ve really been enjoying listening to.

Bahamut by Hazmat Modine

The first was Bahamut by Hazmat Modine. I had never heard of Hazmat Modine before, which is a shame, because their style is right up my rather eclectic street, and they have a fantastic name to boot. I like a lot of different styles of music, and I love it when these are combined. However, it doesn’t work when styles are ‘mashed up’ for the sake of it: the musicians need to love all the styles and combine them simply because it feels natural.

One reason that I love Hazmat Modine is that they clearly love all the styles they play. Listening to Bahamut, I could pick out blues, bluegrass, New Orleans jazz, reggae and klezmer, and to cap it all, the album also features Huun-Huur-Tu. They are a Tuvan throat singing group, and — like many Tuvan musicians — they make a haunting, unearthly sound, which happens (surprisingly) to combine perfectly with the jazz/blues/bluegrass style of Hazmat Modine.

The music is guitar and brass driven, with the occasional excellent harmonica solo, and some terrific vocals from Wade Schuman. He swerves from a growl to a Neil Young-like falsetto, and reminds me a little of the late, great Captain Beefheart. They manage to capture the kind of sweetness underscored with bitterness and melancholy that characterises both klezmer and bluegrass music, and on the tracks where Huun-Huur-Tu contribute, they add a bit of wilderness to the mix.

I love the title track, which is a sort of preposterous, rollicking stomp, but I’m also addicted to the track Everybody Loves You. It sets off at a rolling lope, with Huun-Huur-Tu providing backing vocals which move between an infrasonic drone and an amazing sound that reminds me of the wind blowing through telephone or fence wires. It would be a great walking song, and it manages to be simultaneously warm, comforting and bleak. You listen to it and think of people walking or on horseback across a dry plain with huge skies overhead. It could be Oregon or the Mongolian Steppes, and the mix of styles means that your mind flips between the two like looking at a Necker cube. Extraordinary.

The whole album is amazing, and well worth a listen if you get the chance.

Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington (Roulette/Classic Records)

This is a very special pressing of a Roulette recording from the early 1960s of Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong playing together, taken directly from the original master and pressed on to heavy-weight 200g vinyl.

Much as I love the convenience and portability of digital audio formats, there’s nothing like listening to good quality vinyl on a decent system, and this album sounds superb. The raw material is wonderful, which helps a lot. Both artists are (were) incredibly talented, and together they are relaxed and inventive, and you can feel their enjoyment of the session coming through in the music.

One of the hallmarks of musical genius is that they make it appear totally effortless. Louis’ trumpet playing is as brilliant and bright as always, but I also love his voice too. It’s not a ‘perfect’ singing voice by any means, but it is so warm and human that nothing else matters. That quality is displayed to great effect on ‘I’m Just A Lucky So And So’, with sensitive piano accompaniment by Duke Ellington. Ellington’s piano never overwhelms the music, but winds its way brilliantly among the other instruments, setting them off to perfection. Again, he makes it look easy, but it’s a real feat of musicianship.

The recording quality is excellent, and has such clarity and warmth that you really feel as if they are in the room with you. You feel the vibration of the strings of the bass, and the the bright splashes of the trumpet and trombone, and every instrument is clear and yet integrated well with the others. It’s worth the odd pop and crackle to get that kind of intimacy, and the slightly fussy process of putting a record on the turntable actually means that you sit down and listen to the music, rather than having it on in the background.